Guide Celtic Melodies

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Free-reed instruments like the accordion and concertina, invented in the 19th century, became instantly popular because they were portable, relatively cheap and easy to play. The banjo was taken over from the minstrel bands that were well-known throughout the English-speaking world at the turn of the century. The clarinet became a common folk instrument in parts of Brittany where it is called the treujenn kaol or 'cabbage stump,' but it didn't spread to other parts of the Celtic world.

Nevertheless, there is no reason why it couldn't be used to play Irish or Scottish music. Foreign string instruments like the bouzouki and the cittern have been adopted into Celtic tradition within the last few decades. The transverse flute is still widely played in Ireland in its original 18th-century wooden form. The tin whistle or pennywhistle, a cheap metallic version of the recorder or blockflute, was originally a children's instrument and one used to teach tunes to beginning musicians who would eventually learn an 'adult' instrument like the fiddle, but it has come to be taken seriously as a virtuoso instrument featured in national competitions.

Of all the instruments that have been played by Celtic musicians in recent tradition, the Irish uilleann pipes deserve special mention. Although, as we have noted, bagpipes ceased to be fashionable in the early modern period and survived only in out-of-the-way rural areas, their very quaintness and association with rusticity and "pastoral" themes gave them a brief spell of renewed popularity during the 18th century. At the same time an attempt was made to make them more genteel and suitable for indoor performance while preserving their characteristic droning sound.

Softer reeds were used, and the flow of air into the bag was assured not by blowing through a mouthpiece but by a a bellows activated with the elbow, whence the Irish instrument's name, from uilleann, 'elbow'. Some bagpipes of this type still used in folk tradition include the Northumbrian pipes in England, the Scottish Border pipes, and the cabreta in the Auvergne, but the uilleann pipes of Ireland are by far the most complex.

In their fully developed form they have three drones and three 'regulators,' small additional chanters activated with the wrist, that can provide harmonic accompaniment for the melody played on the chanter. To use all the instrument's resources fully and properly requires considerable skill and coordination, and virtuoso uilleann pipers command a great deal of respect, although their repertoire draws on essentially the same materials as that of the fiddlers, and has nothing to do with piobaireachd.

Dance music implies a strongly marked rhythm, and rhythm is readily enhanced by percussion. Its Cornish counterpart is called the kroeder kroghen 'skin sieve' -often Anglicised as 'crowdy crawn,' which suggests that it was originally a winnowing sieve that could double as a drum at need. In Scotland and Brittany various forms of military side drums and snare drums have been borrowed as percussion for dance bands.

Another old rhythm instrument is the sheep-bone castanets, today often replaced by spoons. In communities that had middle-class pretensions, however, the most suitable accompaniment for instrumental soloists was felt to be the piano, in imitation of art-music practices. The piano was a symbol of prestige and respectability for a community that could afford to have one in a permanent dance-hall, and piano players developed a standard way of providing chordal accompaniments for Celtic folk dance tunes.

It was changing ideas of what constituted middle-class respectability that eventually dismissed Celtic traditional music to the invisible underworld of lower-class culture by the beginning of the 20th century. Sentimental music-hall tunes came to be what most people thought of as 'Irish music,' and Celtic music survived publicly in only a few specialised venues, like marching pipe bands. Traditional fiddlers, however, continued to perform in rural areas, even as the folk bagpipes had survived there. Some precious recordings were made of early 20th-century virtuoso fiddlers, like Michael Coleman from Sligo.


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The tradition thus remained unbroken until some musicians in the latter half of the 20th century learned to look at it in a new, more appreciative way and breathed fresh life into it. His efforts helped many people in Ireland rediscover the worth of authentic Irish traditional music. One of his most important contributions, however, was bringing together a group of young musicians to play his arrangements. As the group included both classically-trained and traditional instrumentalists, it managed to combine multi-layered, tightly controlled arrangements reminiscent of classical chamber music with the wild improvisational quality of folk playing.

This unique sound, quite new in Celtic music and yet very faithful to the spirit of the tradition, completely changed the public perception of Irish music and led many musicians to explore Gaelic heritage with a greater awareness of its distinctive traits and of the creative possibilities it presented. The other major figure at the roots of the Celtic music revival was a young Breton musician named Alain Cochevelou, who is far better-known by his stage name, Alan Stivell.

Taught to play the Celtic harp by his father Jord Cochevelou, a Breton cultural activist and a pioneer in the restoration of the native harp tradition, Alan had also been part of a bagad or pipe band, a device used by Breton activists to maintain a Celtic cultural consciousness in young people even during the difficult years when the French government officially persecuted all manifestations of Breton identity.

Having been exposed to this wealth of heritage and having absorbed so many techniques from various Celtic sources, Alan Stivell remained faithful to the pan-Celtic ideal while working primarily within the Breton tradition. In the late s and early s he became a sensation on the folk-music scene, first as a harp soloist and then as the leader of a group. His arrangements were daring and unabashedly modern, not shrinking from using electric rock sounds and aggressively enhanced beats, thus disarming those who dismissed everything Celtic as old-fashioned rural backwater music.

This approach proved immensely successful with young audiences, and Stivell's pan-Celtic connections quickly made him famous throughout the Celtic world. Groups began to form under his influence in all the Celtic countries, treating Celtic music in an experimental, innovative manner without sacrificing the essence of the tradition.

Among the most influential of the groups that appeared during the s was Planxty, which combined singing with cleverly constructed acoustic instrumental accompaniment. This became an attractive model for new groups such as Ossian in Scotland, Ar Log and Cilmeri in Wales, Bucca in Cornwall, and many others too numerous to list.

A somewhat different but equally influential approach was taken by the Bothy Band, which maintained traditional acoustic styles of playing while emphasising the rhythmic drive of the tunes to an unusual degree. Other groups, like Clannad, came to borrow more and more elements from rock and jazz. This Celtic music revival reached its peak during the s, helped by a cooperative recording industry and by gigantic ongoing music festivals like those at Killarney and Lorient, which regularly feature performers from all six Celtic nations as well as Galicia and Asturies, encouraging the cross-fertilisation of traditions.

Since then the number of active groups has dropped, and the mass marketing of Celtic music has brought it more and more into the New Age category, where its mellow and dreamy aspects are emphasised, catering to mainstream culture's romanticised notions of what is Celtic. More groups have also been mixing Celtic material with rock and other popular styles.

It is a matter of debate, of course, whether such music represents an innovative continuation of Celtic tradition or whether it is just rock or another commercial genre with some surface Celtic elements added on. Where one draws the line will depend very much on individual tastes and perceptions. It should be noted, however, that as this music comes to be experienced more and more through urban concert halls and through recordings, it has less and less to do with the life of Celtic communities, and thus with Celtic culture. Nevertheless, and in spite of such developments, the revival is still very much alive, and in its wake more and more resources have become available to those who would want to discover and understand the rich tradition of Celtic music in all of its varied manifestations.

Celtic tradition from both literary and folk sources makes it clear that music was thought to be a powerful medium that could, under the right circumstances, grant access to the Otherworld, or bring about the kind of inner transformation one associated with such visits. In the story of the Battle of Mag Tuired, the Dagda makes his Fomorian antagonists helpless by playing the triple strain so skillfully that tears, laughter, or sleep take over their entire consciousness, banishing their original intent. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi it is the music of the birds of Rhiannon that maintains the trance in which the survivors of the apocalyptic battle of Morddwyd Tyllion feast in the presence of the severed head of Bran the Blessed, hearing him converse with them as though he were alive.

In more recent folklore, encounters with the fairies are frequently described in terms of enticing music which can lead to a suspension of the sense of time. Professional musicians who hear the music sometimes attempt to reproduce it in their own playing.

Some items in the traditional repertoire, usually identified as being from the fairies, are considered to be gifts from the Otherworld. All these examples suggest that music is a link between worlds that takes the listener out of himself and changes him and that, when approached with this in mind, it becomes a sacred art. It is therefore an important component of a Celtic spiritual path. How can we engage with existing Celtic musical traditions in a way that brings out what they have to offer as spiritual resources?

The best way, of course, is to go from being a passive listener to becoming a performer actually working with the tradition. Don't worry about what you think of the quality of your voice or the limitations of your musical talent. Your primary goal isn't to perform before a critical audience but to get an intimate understanding, through personal experience, of the process of music-making in this tradition.

As we have seen, each singer is expected to provide his own improvised embellishments to the received melody of the song. The melodies given in published song collections are usually unembellished. They are the bare skeletons on which the singer is supposed to put the flesh of a living performance by adding a considerable amount of spontaneously created ornamentation. You will want to listen to traditional singers-either live or recorded-to get a sense of the techniques used to accomplish this, and the kind of sound that is aimed at. You may also want to practice these techniques by imitating certain outstanding performances.

However, slavish imitation is not the goal. They may do an excellent job of it, and the effect may be quite pleasing, but it completely sidesteps the creative, improvisational element that is at the heart of the tradition. The primary focus of Celtic song performance is on the music's pulse, linking it to an important theme in Celtic spirituality. Celtic ritual and mythological traditions tend to revolve around the notion of periodicity, of all things changing according to a rhythmic pattern, as winter succeeds summer, striving gives way to repose, death balances life.

Music obeys this same cosmic pulse. It oscillates between poles of activity and rest, charging the melody with complex, busy ornamentation at one extreme, then balancing it with long, relaxed held notes at the other. In tempo giusto melodies the pulse will be metrically regular, while in the parlando-rubato style its duration can be varied at will, but the same complementarity of activity and repose within the pulse will apply in all cases.

Study the contours of the melody you have chosen to sing to determine how this pulse will manifest within it. Get a sense of how each passage for which you will provide lavish ornamentation must lead to the plateau of a restful held note, then swing back into a phase of improvisational activity.


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As you do this, be aware that you're expressing an aspect of the pulse of the cosmos, that you are one with its process. There is yet more to realising the full expressive potential of a melody, however. Before you even attempt to sing it, study the Celtic-language text of the song. Repeat the words aloud, making sure to pronounce the words correctly, and savour their sound. Much traditional Celtic poetry is deliberately alliterative, and the resulting sound-patterns are as much a part of the music of the song as the pitches and durations of the melody.

Then concentrate on feeling how this awareness of the sounds and meanings of the words would affect your treatment of the melody itself. Determine for yourself where those words are, how they fit into the pulse of the melody, and what kind of improvisational treatment you will choose to give them.

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Only once you have integrated all these elements will your conception of the song be complete. For musicians who are proficient at playing an instrument and wish to explore the creative and spiritual possibilities of Celtic music on that level, the same understanding of musical pulse will apply, but there will also be wider considerations of compositional form. Although we have no evidence of such music being put to an explicit religious use, the feeling of intense reverence that the tradition inspired in the musicians of Dennis Hempson's generation does suggest that it was intended to give access to "higher" states than mere mundane consciousness.

As such, it had some of the elements of a spiritual discipline and a sacred calling. As happens so often when we look to the roots of Celtic culture, we can turn to India for a useful model of a classical music tradition with spiritual underpinnings. This model seems all the more appropriate since it shares many stylistic traits with Celtic music, including a similar concept of ornamentation.

Typically, Indian musical development also follows a theme-and-variations pattern, though with a looser definition of 'theme. The constantly changing melodic line represents an individual experience in time, while the drone accompaniment suggests the immutable, primal sound of the Universe.

When the soloist has stopped the drone goes on for a few moments, reminding us that the eternal music of the world is always there, regardless of what we focus on in the foreground. Each classical music performance, then, is a spiritual experience and is implicitly an offering to Sarasvati, the goddess of music and of all artistic creativity, and many pieces with sung texts are intended to be explicit praises of various divinities. This is not difficult to translate into a Celtic context.

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We have no certain knowledge of what pre-Christian ritual music sounded like. However, we do have some evidence of the development of Celtic musical tradition. From this, we can make some educated guesses as to what kinds of music would sound right in such a context, and what kinds would not. We have seen, for instance, that certain modal patterns seem to be characteristic of a more ancient heritage within Celtic music than others.

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We also have types of music like the formal lament and Ossianic chant, which are related to ritual and may well have pre-Christian roots, and which can thus provide a clue to the kind of sound appropriate to a ritual in Celtic tradition. Think of it this way: one of the best ways to show respect for an elder is to listen to what they have to say. Often what they want to tell you is what happened to them long ago. Sometimes they want to tell you what they learned. Other times, they just want you to laugh with them. Mostly they want you to listen. Learning lore is a way of listening to the elders who are no longer with you, of showing respect, of demonstrating that their ways and knowledge are important to you.

And you may even learn from them. Anyone who spends some time in Celtic music milieus will sooner or later become aware of the alleged Celtic traditions of northwestern Spain. Musical groups from Galicia and Asturies are regularly invited to pan-Celtic music festivals. Musicians from other Celtic countries have taken an interest in their material-the Chieftains, for example, have dedicated an entire album to the music of Galicia and other parts of northern Spain. Galicia is sometimes listed as 'the seventh Celtic nation. Who, then, has the right of it?

Galicia, or Galiza, as it is called in the native language, does indeed have Celtic roots. As its name indicates, it was originally the tribal territory of the Gallaeci, just as their eastern neighbours, the Astures, are still remembered in the name of the province of Asturies. These areas came under Roman rule in the 2nd century BCE and were eventually assimilated into the culture of the Empire. When the Western Empire fell apart in the 5th century CE, most of northern Spain found itself under the rule of a Germanic tribe, the Suevi, who in subsequent centuries were able to fend off the Moorish tide that took over the rest of the peninsula, and thus remained integrated with Christian Europe.

During the same period colonists from Britain, part of the emigration movement that also led to the settlement of Brittany, established themselves in Galicia, where they founded monasteries in the Celtic Christian tradition.

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However, by the end of the 7th century these ethnic religious communities had been forced back into the Roman mainstream, and the Celtic-speakers became Romance-speakers. The present-day Galician language is closely related to Portuguese. Nevertheless, this area remained quite different from the rest of Spain, never having been under Moorish domination and thus never having absorbed the Arab elements that so strongly influenced Spanish culture elsewhere.

Galicia and Asturies are, not surprisingly, much more like other parts of western Europe, like France and Britain and Ireland. It remains an important element of the culture to this day, leading Galician writers to draw on Celtic literature for many of their themes, and bringing about a general desire for close relations with the Celtic world, fulfilled most successfully at music festivals.

Galicia's piping tradition is often pointed to as proof of its Celtic connection, although, as we have seen, bagpipes were once widespread throughout rural Europe and are no indicator of a Celtic heritage. This is not to say, however, that there are no Celtic elements in Galician culture. Some of the legends about saints, for instance, are very closely related to similar lore in Ireland and Brittany, and are certainly inherited from the Celtic Christian settlement. Many other Galician folk traditions have counterparts in the Celtic world.

But by and large these are traits that are shared with most areas of western Europe where communities have maintained a continuous sense of identity since Gallo-Roman times. The Auvergne in the mountains of south-central France, for instance, has an identity that goes back to the Aruerni, the tribe to which Vercingetorix belonged. Much of its folk culture has clear Gallo-Roman roots, and is generally conservative in that it has retained many mediaeval customs that went out of fashion during the 17th century in less isolated areas.

It also has a prominent bagpipe tradition, and much of its folk music has an archaic Celtic sound. By his death in , he had collected and transcribed nearly 3, tunes -- many of them dating back hundreds of years! The first volume is still in print -- but the other two are very hard to find especially Waifs and Strays! These three volumes contain over 3, popular Celtic Tunes! We are pleased to present over 3, tunes from these three books for your free download pleasure. Note that you may have to alter the speed of the tune to suit your needs. Also, while these are transcribed pieces, they were originally passed down aurally from player to player.

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